This library’s not for burning, but caught within a memory
as thin as those pale pages - the Sir Thomas Malory -
Edition? Some distant time to this.
Domestic memory mine, sharpened on The Wide Sargasso Sea
another wife gone mad with smells of passion and remembered
wheeling prams through foreign streets in dead of winter.

Morte d’Arthur, the Malory, I’d whispered, leaning
on the pushchair beneath the librarian’s eye, chest tight
with expectancy and fear.
There was a Tennyson on the shelf but no, as if she had nothing
else to do but descend into basements; why today, why these?
Not taken out since 1938.

Later on the sofa whilst the baby slept, the pages turned,
yellowed as my fingers in this climate … school poetry.
Somewhere in these pages dozed an England offered back
from days of schoolrooms loud with Caribbean prattling -
Lebanese cedars, Tam O’Shanter, Prisoners of Chillon,
lochs and Lochinvars and knights …

and hours passed, between the nappy changing, the heating on
the hob of tins of baby food from Boots - those dreams again -
not this coarse love between the sheets, but Lancelot’s, whose
battle-weary fingers stroked my cheeks whilst lyric language
into my ear - not this Southern rasp of innits and awlrightloves
silken threads and gossamers and ye and olde and Avalon and
ladies of
the lake rising like manatees with grace.
If the Catholic was still not deep within me, keep I would have
kept them,
all three - for three they were, that magic fable number, each one
and fitting warm within my palm as if they’d made their home
there. Could just imagine one or three white lies -

So sorry, the baby dropped them in the bath, how much were they?

A generation later, returning from the sun, I heard the library
my heart did too, and fell
from battlements too high for me to rescue, knowing that the
flames rushed
through the basement too, and wondered if the last to take them
had been myself, that Ramsgate morning, 1979.

How close I would have held them; how still.

Ramsgate Library burned in 2000

Maggie Harris
from After a Visit to a Botanical Garden